Animal Mortuary Finds

Animals held special religious significance for in Ancient Egypt. As early as predynastic times, animals were given special burials near the graves of the wealthy at Hierakonpolis. Renée Friedman (2003) has discovered the remains of elephants associated with a specific elite tomb which may have housed an early king in predynastic Hierakonpolis. She has hypothesized that the elephant was the ka of the great ruler as early pharaohs associated their names and powers with specific animals. In dynastic times, mortuary practices for special animals became more elaborate an are found on a larger scale.

Saqqara is home to more than just pyramids. It is also home to many animal cults. North Saqqara is sometimes referred to as the animal necropolis. The most famous of these, of course, is that of the Apis bull made famous after Auguste Mariette discovered the Serapeum in North Saqqara. The Apis bull was seen as “the living image of Osiris,” and he had a temple in Memphis and a tomb in Saqqara (Mariette-Bey, 1928, p. 10).  Mariette (1928) gauged that the Serapeum dates to the 16th Dynasty and lasted through the years of the Ptolemies. The Louvre houses some artifacts uncovered by Mariette such as statues of the Apis bull where sanctuaries once stood and sphinxes that lined the processional way up to the temple (David, n. d.). These findings point to the religious importance of the site and the high esteem with which the Egyptian people held the deity.

Later excavations in Saqqara revealed other mummified animals outside the Serapeum. Emery (1965) went to Saqqara seeking the tomb of architect Imhotep and instead found mummies of bulls and thousands of ibis mummies in a labyrinth. Most of the mummies were from the Ptolemaic period, but some dated to the Old Kingdom. Paul Nicholson (1994) expanded on this work by further exploring hawk (or falcon), ibis, mothers of Apis, and baboon catacombs. He found both genuine mummies and pseudo-mummies made of different kinds of bones. Of the birds, ibises were more likely to be genuine mummies according to Nicholson because they were easier to raise in captivity than birds of prey. Therefore, there was a larger supply that could be mummified.

Site reports from the archaeologists who dug at these sites provide the most information. Their findings are important because animal cults provide a piece of Egyptian religious life. These religious cults using animals to honor specific gods are also a reflection of the wealth in Egypt, particularly in the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic periods that many of the mummies date to. The animals were carefully buried in catacombs, and it would have been expensive to construct the labyrinths and prepare thousands and thousands of animals for burial. This was particularly true for the Apis bull that had great national importance, and everyone mourned at his death (Ray, 1978, p. 151). Finding a successor that met all the appropriate requirements was carefully accomplished. Money was spent on the Apis bull to keep him alive and healthy, and it was appropriate to bring him gifts and offerings. There is a lot of focus on the greatness of the tombs built for pharaohs, and although mortuary findings from animals are not necessarily of the same caliber, they still had central significance in Egyptian religious life just as the pharaoh did.


David, E. (n.d.). Apis bull. Retrieved from

David, E. (n.d.). Processional way of sphinxes. Retrieved from

Emery, W. B. (1965). Preliminary report on the excavations of North Saqqara 1964-5. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 51. 3-8.

Friedman, R. (2003).  The elephant is revealed. Retrieved from   

Mariette- Bey, A. (1928). Classics of science: Discovery of the Serapeum. The Science News-Letter, 13 (352). 9-10.

Nicholson, P. T. (1994). Preliminary report on the work at the sacred animal necropolis, North Saqqara, 1992. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 80. 1-10.

Ray, J. D. (1978). The world of North Saqqara. World Archaeology, 10 (2). 149-157.

3 thoughts on “Animal Mortuary Finds

  1. How fascinating that you are focusing your proposed topic on animals. I think it will be interesting to read, given that most times, many people are well immersed with the Egyptian pharaohs and pyramids etc. that the animals of Ancient Egypt often get brushed or glossed over. Focusing on the mortuary practices of animals can be a bit tricky. Do you plan to primarily focus on the mortuary practices of a few specific animals, one of which being the Apis bull, or just doing a broad overview of what the mortuary process of animals was like in general?
    I think it is a good idea that you picked a specific location to look into. I am sure the Saqqara site would provide enough information for you to fuel your paper, and it is a good idea to stick with one area rather than jumping from various locations. Also, is the Apis bull going to be your main animal focus or are the animals that you are choosing to focus on, hold high religious importance to that of the rulers? Or is there a section going to be about animal cults in general? All in all, I think that this is a pretty awesome topic! 😀

  2. Great topic – I think you can do a lot with animal remains, because there is so much to learn from them. Most people tend to focus on the human remains, so it’s a nice change to see an analysis of animal remains and animal mummies in research. Animals can tell a lot about past populations and their diet, ritual practices, domestication practices, etc. Besides looking at the Saqqara necropolis, are you also going to look at historical documents, or hieroglyphics to identify possible importance and/or use of these animals?

    Also, one suggestion is that you might want to look into the British Museum. I don’t know if they have anything online, but when I visited this summer they had a decent collection of falcon and cat mummies. If there are any articles or online exhibits about this topic from the British Museum, it could provide additional information that you could use in your paper.

    If you have any extra room in your paper, you could also possibly look into animals that have not been found, that were known to exist in the Eastern Africa area. What does this mean? Did Egyptians and Nubians not like these animals? Why is this the case? I think it’s interesting to not just focus on what is found, but what is not found.

  3. I love this topic! We know that ancient Egyptians thought very highly of animals, specifically cats, and some even got burials like humans. Hieroglyphics would be a good place to look at what they thought of different animals. Are you going to look at animal remains of ancient rulers or is there a way to know if they are citizens “pets”. Was there a difference in mortuary practices of religious or royal animals? What else did they consider sacred? I was wondering if there is any research done on the comparisons of how we treat our animals that have passed on versus how ancient Egyptians did, besides being mummified. I don’t know if this is too off topic of what you wanted to do but you mentioned the elephants that were found, were there any animal mortuary finds that were not native to the area? And how did they come to be there?
    This is a very interesting topic because like CJ said, most people just focus on the structures and human remains we find. I’m sure just like us; animals were a part of their everyday life so they would want to respect them after they had passed on by giving them a proper burial.

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